Robots are taking all the jobs. But are we, the average, moderately skilled humans, screwed, or aren't we? Let me just get it out of the way now: We are, unless there are drastic, immediate changes to education and economic systems around the world.
The dominant narrative going around today about Pew Research's new report on artificial intelligence and the future of jobs is that experts can't really decide whether automation is going to make working obsolete, that it's really a toss up whether robots will simply create new jobs in other sectors as they destroy ones in other.
That's true, in one sense: The 1,896 futurists, CEOs, journalists, and university professors questioned for the report were split in half over robots will "displace significant numbers of both blue- and white-collar workers," with 52 percent of respondents agreeing that "human ingenuity will create new jobs, industries, and ways to make a living, just as it has been doing since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution."
But there's one major caveat: The respondents overwhelmingly agree that this lovely future where robots do the work and humans design the robots and everyone has leisure time and lots of money only exists in a fantasy future where the school systems pump out a shitload of Elon Musks and Sergey Brins—or, at the very least, people who can reliably work at the companies those guys own.
"The jobs that the robots will leave for humans will be those that require thought and knowledge. In other words, only the best-educated humans will compete with machines," Howard Rheingold, an internet sociologist, told Pew. "And education systems in the US and much of the rest of the world are still sitting students in rows and columns, teaching them to keep quiet and memorize what is told to them, preparing them for life in a 20th century factory.”
Only the best-educated humans will compete with machines
In other words, if we continue down this path we're on without finding a way to completely revamp the education system to turn the average students into exceptional ones who can outperform a robot, we'll look back on today's income inequality gap and think it was a golden age for the middle class.
If the education system doesn't change to start pumping out technologically savvy, creative people as the rule, not the exception, the rise of robot workers is "certain to lead to an increase in income inequality, a continued hollowing out of the middle class, and even riots, social unrest, and/or the creation of a permanent, unemployable 'underclass,'" the Pew report concludes.
Yes, historically, technology has killed certain types of jobs while creating others. But what we're seeing happen right now isn't merely a redistribution of unskilled jobs to other sectors over the course of a couple decades, or the outsourcing of factory workers to other countries or cities with better tax breaks.
Instead, it's wiping out entire industries, entire swaths of the economy, in years, not decades. And it's killing white collar jobs as frequently as it's killing blue collar ones.
As for the jobs created by tech, it doesn't matter what color or kind of collar you wear, because the people who can do those jobs are so highly sought after that they can wear whatever the hell they want.
Justin Reich, a Harvard University fellow at its Berkman Center for Internet & Society, perhaps painted the clearest picture of this future:
"There will be a labor market in the service sector for non-routine tasks that can be performed interchangeably by just about anyone—and these will not pay a living wage—and there will be some new opportunities created for complex non-routine work, but the gains at this top of the labor market will not be offset by losses in the middle and gains of terrible jobs at the bottom," he told Pew. "The jobs that are left will be lower paying and less secure than those that exist now. The middle is moving to the bottom.”
That's why the idea of a basic income is so appealing to many futurists, and why it might inevitably be necessary to keep everyone from starving.
We've already seen the beginnings of what Reich is talking about, of course, and we've seen some of the strife that income inequality has caused. There's the chance, maybe the inevitability, that the billions of people whose jobs stand to be automated will revolt.
But if the status quo remains, technical skills won't be enough. The only jobs that actually pay enough to live on will be highly skilled, and with a school system that's not turning out enough skilled workers, it's looking increasingly like the "average people"—at least until the education system is systematically and thoroughly reformed—could end up completely screwed.